Domestic carrier Southwest is going global. The airline is acquiring a new worldwide reservations system that will give it the ability to fly internationally by 2014.
Industry insiders have considered Southwest a potential international player for a long time. The airline even took a few very small steps toward Canada and Mexico through affiliations with other lines, but nothing much came of those efforts. I'm not enough of a geek to understand why Southwest needs a new reservations system before it can add a few flights outside the U.S., but everyone seems to be accepting that premise as gospel.
Meanwhile, Southwest's wholly-owned subsidiary, AirTran, already has international capability and flies extensively to a handful of destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. But AirTran is caught up in a fight with United over whether the government should provide international capability for AirTran at Houston Hobby Airport.
In order for AirTran to fly from Houston to Mexico, as Southwest wants it to do, the U.S. must install international inspection capabilities at Hobby, the main Houston base for Southwest and AirTran. United is resisting this move because it's trying to avoid having a competitor fly to Mexican and Caribbean points from anywhere in the Houston area. United's arguments to keep George Bush Intercontinental as Houston's only international gateway seem really weak, but the airline has a lot of political clout. For now, the outcome is yet to be determined.
Regardless of what happens in Houston, you can expect Southwest to start flying internationally from several major cities, under its own brand, starting sometime in 2014. The most likely destinations remain Canada, Mexico, and the nearby Caribbean. For now, Southwest doesn't have any long-range intercontinental planes. Still, all but the newest used planes come cheap these days, and Southwest could arrange to fly to London—the most likely long-haul target—without much trouble.
The upshot of all this is that the odds are probably better than 50-50 that you'll see AirTran-branded flights from Houston to the Caribbean and Mexico within a year. Regarding intercontinental routes from Southwest, for now it's anybody's guess, but in any case, nothing will happen until at least 2014.
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